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Can Virtual Reality Help you Face your Fears?

by Laura Brewer
14 minutes read

Everyone has a fear that they battle with throughout their lives. Whether one suffers from a fear of heights, a specific phobia or PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) from a past incident, virtual reality can assist as a therapeutic measure. I bet you’re wondering how? Virtual reality gives you a chance to experience your fears without living through them in real-time. Virtual reality (VR) therapy is creating your worst fear through 3D virtual reality goggles that enable you to fully engage in scenes related to your condition.

What causes a phobia, such as fear of heights? Some overestimate the danger by thinking they are going to fall, or the building might collapse on them. This causes anxiety for these individuals and results in avoiding heights on a day-to-day basis. Most cannot walk or drive across a bridge, go to meetings in higher buildings or take a flight on an airplane. “About 1 in 20 people have it at the level of phobia,” which is when you experience it for at least six months. 

With virtual reality therapy, patients can wear a headset and immerse themselves in a specific scenario and be monitored during the whole process with a therapist. Patients can hear, feel and even smell certain aspects of their virtual experience, but the therapists are able to remove you from the situation if terror or anxiety gets too high. A therapist who has been doing this with patients says it only takes three to five sessions for people to see positive results. Virtual reality is more impactful than watching videos on frightful scenarios because of the practicality instead of exposing them to real-life situations. 

One therapist began offering VR therapy for alcoholism addiction. Patients would virtually visit a party or store where alcohol is served while the therapist would waft scents of alcohol at the client. The patient naming this experience as an eye-opening experience that no longer triggers the desires and temptations. Even Dick Tracey faced his fear of heights through a VR headset. The instant fear obviously set in when he reached the top of the high rise of the building. Falling to his knees and looking to grab onto something solid then realizing nothing was going to happen at that moment in time. The purpose of this is to gradually introduce people to their greatest fears/ terrors by facing them in the most realistic way without fully experiencing them in real-time.  

After 20 years of research, technology is now reaching the mainstream by having lighter and more affordable equipment, thus making VR therapy more achievable to all. Some therapists even predict that individuals with mild phobias will be able to treat themselves at home. Research proves that VR therapy can lead to real-world security for people with phobias and works just as well as exposure therapy. For some, fear of flying is a battle that disables them from travel. A man was forced off an airplane from his own fear and anxiety of “being locked in a metal tube.” Undergoing VR exposure therapy in elevators, buses and trains, he was able to fly again within a matter of months. In a sense, these fears and phobias can affect individuals in their everyday lives.

VR therapy does not always relieve the full fear or phobia, but it minimizes it to a manageable level. By experiencing it through a headset, it makes the person learn their feelings are survivable and that something bad does not always happen. The best studies of VR therapy have had less than 100 patients because it is still so new. However, VR therapy will increasingly be delivered at home through the internet. Currently, therapists, researchers, and scientists are bouncing ideas off one another to move forward with it. Limbix, for example, is doing field-test VR content, which is part of the National Mental Health Innovation Center at the University of Colorado’s medical school. The future may have children use VR to cope with anxiety in all aspects of life. Such as a teacher handing a paperback with a bad grade and other students laughing in the background, it will help children cope better in specific situations based around certain fears in the classroom.

Over the next few months and years, treatment for VR therapy will be put into effect eventually transitioning it to be a cost-effective treatment at home. With the evolution of this therapy, more people will likely be able to deal with their fears at home. As a result, many will not fear the cost of a therapist entirely when they are able to purchase and experience VR therapy in the comfort of their own home.

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